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Although she lived for twenty more years, in 1975 my mother was eighty years old. Nevertheless, she did not display the slightest surprise, or hesitation in answering, "Sure", when asked if she would like to have dinner with Jimmy Hoffa. One of her constant pleasures was to be doing things that other women couldn't match.
The Philadelphia County Medical Society's Center City branch was having dinner, and the program chairman had the main goal in life of attracting speakers who would bring an overflow audience. Jimmy Hoffa, the former president of the Teamsters Union, recently released from prison, certainly filled that description; one of the members of the branch had a patient who was a teamster official who happened to know that Jimmy would love to speak to the doctors about medical care in prisons. Not only was he willing, but he also paid his own expenses to fly up from Florida to give the speech. As by far the oldest lady present, my mother was not to be denied when she demanded to be seated at the head table.
Hoffa was indeed a charming person and an able proponent of his cause. He had experienced medical care in a prison, he felt mistreated, and the doctors in the audience were sympathetic to what they suspected was quite true. They generally began that evening with conflicting opinions, because it is generally known that doctors in the prison environment are often threatened, and occasionally harmed. We know quite well how reluctant the Legislature is to spend one cent on a group of people they dislike, and how they all wish the problem would just go away. By the end of the evening, Hoffa held his audience in his hand. No wonder he rose to the top of his organization.
Well, the impact of the evening was certainly heightened, even in my mother's view, by the fact that two weeks later Hoffa just disappeared, and there have been hundreds of books and articles written about his probable grisly murder by the Mafia. The latest is called I Heard You Paint Houses, in which one Frank Sheeran is quoted as claiming, or even boasting, that he had been the hit man. I wouldn't know. The title, however, is reliably known to refer to all the blood which is found splattered about, following a mob rub-out. Calling them wise guys is quite apt.
The reawakening of this topic by the book does raise some other old questions of the highest rank. Reviewing the evidence, it is possible to believe Hoffa was not guilty of precisely what Bobby Kennedy was accusing him of. At least, the prosecution failed to convince one jury of it. The FBI records do seem to indicate that J. Edgar Hoover offered him evidence of the questionable Kennedy private lives, which Hoffa refused to use in his defense in the trial. And there seems to be little doubt that he worked hard to elect Richard Nixon, or that Nixon later commuted his sentence. Generally speaking, he was on the side of the angels concerning Mafia influence in the Teamsters Union. But his strange relationship to Nixon and the Kennedy family is quite another matter, although equally obscure.
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, September 16, 2021